Syria Justice and Accountability Centre: ECtHR as an Avenue for Accountability – Possibilities and Constraints

SJAC Update | May 9, 2017
European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, France | Photo Credit: Flikr, Dominik Kreutz

ECtHR as an Avenue for Accountability: Possibilities and Constraints

As Russia has, for the time being, closed the door on all available means for international accountability against the Assad government’s atrocities in Syria, human rights groups and lawyers have pursued alternative avenues for justice, including through national prosecutions in European jurisdictions. Although the complaints that target high-level government officials are hugely symbolic, it remains unlikely that authorities in Europe would be able to apprehend the named defendants even if a court issued an arrest warrant or a guilty verdict in absentia. State-sponsored violence, however, does not begin and end with Syria alone. Other countries have contributed to illicit arms sales, indiscriminate attacks, and other prosecutable offenses during the course of the war. While President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle remain out of reach, are there other means for achieving justice for victims of atrocities in Syria?

As a member of the Council of Europe, Russia is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a human rights instrument that is upheld and adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Any national or resident of a Member State can petition the Court for redress if they have a claim that their rights under the Convention were violated by the Member State. The Court’s judgments are in the form of fines to compensate victims of violations and are binding upon the state in question. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe monitors the execution of fines, and any Member State that repeatedly fails to abide by ECtHR judgements could theoretically be ejected from the Council. Russia isgenerally compliant – as a Member State, it sends its lawyers to defend against claims and, for the most part, respects judgements to pay compensation to victims (although, it rarely makes structural changes to laws/procedures ordered by the Court).

Since Russia entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, the intensity of indiscriminate aerial attacks has increased. Under the mantra of counter-terrorism operations, Russia has used lethal force, resulting in strikes on medical facilities, humanitarian missions, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. While there is plenty of documentation that Russia violated provisions of the ECHR, the primary obstacle for any claim against Russia in the Syrian context will be one of jurisdiction.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is a Syrian-led and multilaterally supported nonprofit that envisions a Syria where people live in a state defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law. SJAC collects, analyzes, and preserves human rights law violations by all parties in the conflict — creating a central repository to strengthen accountability and support transitional justice and peace-building efforts. SJAC also conducts research to better understand Syrian opinions and perspectives, provides expertise and resources, conducts awareness-raising activities, and contributes to the development of locally appropriate transitional justice and accountability mechanisms. Contact us at

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Author: Sarah Lafen

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